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Weir focused and determined for new season

Three-time U.S. champ looking forward to first Skate America

Johnny Weir finished second to Evan Lysacek at the U.S. championships last season.
Johnny Weir finished second to Evan Lysacek at the U.S. championships last season. (Getty Images)

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By Linda Przygodski
(10/22/2008) - Determined may be the best word to describe Johnny Weir.

Coming off one of his most impressive seasons, which included gold medals at the Cup of China and the Cup of Russia, Weir hopes to take the world stage by storm this winter. First up on his schedule is Skate America, where the world bronze medalist will compete for the first time in his career.

"This competition is really my first international event, aside from a few pro-ams, [where] I competed in America," commented Weir. "I've never competed here on an international scale, and it's a good warm-up leading up to the world championships in Los Angeles and, of course, my national championships.

"I usually chose not to skate at Skate America because it's very early in the season. I prefer a longer preparation period, and waiting until November is useful to me. But this year, U.S. Figure Skating asked me if I was interested in going to Skate America, and, of course, I said yes."

Figure skating fans look forward to an early-season showdown between Weir and two-time reigning U.S. champion Evan Lysacek. The rivals have not squared off since they tied at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Lysacek won the title by placing ahead of Weir in the free skate, which is used as a tiebreaker in these situations.

Weir was a bit nonplussed last season over the hullabaloo surrounding the Evan vs. Johnny rivalry. With the 2010 Olympics just 18 months away, he is focusing only on himself and vows to leave talk of any antagonism between the two for others. And while it would be a sweet reward for Weir to trump Lysacek at Skate America, it's not at the top of his agenda.

"My goal is not to peak at Skate America and be the best I can be; my goal is to stand on top of the podium at worlds and nationals," he said. "Skate America is a very valuable stepping stone to achieve what I want later in the season."

The 24-year-old, who will debut two new programs -- a short to "Sur les Ailes du Temp (On the Wings of Time)" and long to music from "Notre Dame de Paris" -- downplayed the importance of adding a quadruple jump to his repertoire. A two-foot landing on his quad, plus a missed combination, contributed to his second-place finish at the 2008 U.S. Championships.

"I actually don't see the value in the quadruple jump," explained Weir. "I do it just because it is almost required of male skaters right now. I don't believe the quadruple jump is the be-all and end-all, and a lot of people have spoken about it as if it is.

"I think it can take away from a beautiful program or a nice clean program when people are trying it and failing. If I had my way, I would not do it because I think it can take away from a program."

Even though he's not looking forward to the quad, there are some new elements in his program that he is jazzed about.

"This year, we have a new spin, a kind of a catch-foot layback spin I'll be doing in both programs," Weir said. "The step sequences are insane, and I hope I don't fall on them in actual competition."

Still, the conversation always seems to return to the four-revolution jump, and the skater has bowed to the inevitable, at least for now.

"Of course, putting the quad in there is always one of the biggest issues, and, at Skate America, I plan on doing it in the free skate," he added.

Since parting ways with long-time coach Priscilla Hill in 2007, Weir's main strategy has centered on improving the quality of his skating, something he thinks working in the Soviet-Russian tradition -- with a team, rather than an individual -- has helped to accomplish.

"It definitely was a huge decision for me to leave Priscilla and start to work with Galina Zmievskaya's team," explained Weir. "That includes Viktor and Nina Petrenko and, of course, Galina herself. I can only see positive results. Last season was one of the best ever; I medaled at every event I competed in except the Grand Prix Final. I really felt like I was growing as a skater and a competitor.

"Having started skating so late, at age 12, I never developed the skill many people develop if they start skating [earlier] in their lives. I went from the start of my career to four years later being the world junior champion. That was a very quick rise, and it's hard to learn to compete, especially on a big scale, when you have [little] experience doing it."

Zmievskaya's team has taken his preparation to a whole new level. Four sets of eyes, including his own, created and refined his programs. His skates are tended for him and driven to the sharpeners. Nina Petrenko even squeezes fresh pomegranate juice for him every morning.

"I went to Galina for this kind of push and drive," he explained. "I can tell you, on a Saturday night, anyone can call me in my apartment, and I'm home, especially when there is a competition looming like right now. There's very precious little I'm doing outside of the ice rink."

Zmievskaya, who coached both her son-in-law Petrenko and Oksana Baiul to world and Olympic titles, is famous for her martinet ways. Petrenko, a qualified ISU technical specialist who served on the 2006 Olympic men's panel, helps ensure Weir's programs earn maximum points. And the skater calls Viktor's wife, Nina, the "free spirit artist" who adds a dash of passion and soul.

"It does take four people to choreograph a program; you can't do it with one person," Weir said, before making it clear he's not a fan of the International Judging System (IJS).

"I think it is difficult for refined and cultured coaches to adjust to the new system when they were so used to being able to create something from a fantasy, to create beautiful pieces of art. Now everything is done as a math problem. But Galina can adjust."

One area Weir kept all to himself this season is his costumes, designing both outfits himself.

"For the short, there needed to be some color and off the shoulder action and rhinestones. That is me, that's what you get when you ask Johnny Weir to show up someplace and do a program," he said.

"The long program is hard. Notre Dame is a very old story. There have been cartoons and live stage productions, and it's hard to interpret something completely your own ... I needed something a little bit Esmeralda, a little bit Quasimodo. I hope it comes across."

After the figure skating world was left in a state of shock by the early retirements of Jeffrey Buttle and Stéphane Lambiel, Weir vowed to see things through to 2010 at least.

"This season, it's important to establish yourself as one of top figure skaters in the world, but you don't want to spend yourself. For me, it's all about skating clean and being the best I can be at every event without killing myself for it. Next season is the season to kill yourself."

Lynn Rutherford contributed to this article.